Traditionally, animal domestication is defined as control over a particular animal species resulting in genetic changes, due to selection for particular traits that bring the species socially into line with a human community. However, this definition is very slippery and limited because ethnographers have shown that many animals considered domesticated are not controlled at all, and the focus on genetic change fails to appreciate that any kind of relationship results in some sort of selection. Instead, I have argued that domestication is a process of separating species from complex ecologies. In our paper, Natasha Fijn and I argue that Australian native bees are being domesticated by being kept in constructed hives, insulated from the elements, protected from predators and pests, and relocated from the bush to Australian backyards. In a recent post, I argued the same for “pure-blooded” dingoes which are being bred in captivity and isolated from the ecological networks that sustained and made demands of their wild ancestors.
Here I want to introduce two people who contest these modes of domestication which separate animals from their ecological networks. In their own ways, they seek to reconcile animals with their ecologies and, in so doing, challenge a wider Australian paradigm of ecological separation.
John Cooper with a dingo pup
John Cooper lives on a small farm in the northern rivers region of New South Wales. Like most farmers in the area, John has sheep and cattle on his land and a problem with dingoes preying on his livestock. The traditional response to dingo predation in Australia, and much of the developed world for that matter, is to kill the dingoes – to create a separation between the livestock animals and the surrounding ecology which contains predators. In Australia, this is usually effected by means of a poison called sodium fluoroacetate or “1080,” which is so ubiquitous that farmers form neighborhood groups and conduct organized poisoning programs. However, within this context, John took a remarkably different approach. He decided to engage the local dingoes and establish a pack of his own. He captured some dingo pups from the wild and raised them at home. He now has seven dingoes living with him on his farm, and they accompany him on his daily rounds of the property, marking out the territory, and letting the wild dingoes know that this land is occupied and off limits to outsider dingoes. The dingoes also howl regularly to let others know not to get too close. While this approach has resulted in some strained relations with neighbors (because his dingoes have attacked their animals), it is not the practicality of John’s idea that I am concerned about here. It is a mode of thinking that sees humans engaged in relations with surrounding ecologies rather than at odds with them.
Tye sitting beside one of his beehives
Tye Kennedy is from Brisbane, though his Aboriginal heritage lies in the Riverina district. As with so many Aboriginal people, his family history has seen him disconnected from his ancestry, but he is seeking to re-establish these ties by engaging with bush foods and keeping native bees. A common approach to keeping stingless bees in Australia is to house them in insulated boxes to exclude climate, predators, and pests. Rather than taking this approach, Tye wants to see how bees can be integrated into ecological systems. This strikes me as an innovative way towards reconciling traditional aboriginal and colonial Australian modes of engaging with ecologies. When I visited Tye, he showed me complex spider webs strung between a row of palm trees. These, he explained, were golden orb spiders. They had only begun constructing the webs in that location after he acquired his beehives, and, interestingly, the webs lay directly in the flight paths of his bees. Rather than destroying the webs to protect his bees, Tye let the webs remain where they were and watched to see what the spiders were catching. He found that very few bees ever got caught in the webs and those that did were left alone by the spiders. Instead, he noticed that the webs were catching syrphid flies. These are wasp-like flies, the larvae of which can, in fact, devastate beehives. This might be a very small-scale backyard experiment, but it exemplifies a novel approach to domestication.
Instead of isolating a species from pests, predators, and the elements, these approaches seek beneficial ways to integrate domesticates into wider ecologies. In a world where an increasing number of animals are raised in sterile facilities, and crops are genetically engineered to survive herbicides that kill everything else, these approaches are not likely to come from the top down. They are part of a grassroots movement that seeks to produce food not in isolation from ecological networks, but in harmony with them.